Notes From the Small Pond
By Parnell Thill
I remember the day I realized I could beat up my dad. I never did, but it was still a singularly terrible day. I was a sophomore in college and had just purchased a pretty fancy road racing bicycle. I spent a lot of “Mill Money” on it and there’d been some serious friction between my dad and me about spending that kind of money “on a damn ol’ bike” when I had a perfectly good Huffy in the garage. The fact that my scholarship had run out that spring and The Thill Family Unit was not quite straight on how we were going to afford my next two years of college was an issue. The fact there’s a “we” in that last sentence was also an issue.
It was late spring and the winter-snow-plow gravel hadn’t yet been swept off the streets with those amazing sweeping machines, all yellow with their circular brushes and the humming, brushing sound and awesome marks they leave in the dust, proof-positive that summer is here. Dad boarded the bike the way I might board a racehorse: anxious and anxious and anxious. My mom and I looked on.
It was clear right away that my dad was uncomfortable. And like a finicky racehorse, my fancy new bike reacted to the nervousness. It didn’t help that my dad had started in a gear that was much too high. It didn’t help that he had been too cocky to listen to my instructions on how to shift the damn thing.
“I know how to ride a G.D. bike,” he said.
“OK, Dad,” I replied. At that point he was still the most capable human being on Planet Earth in my eyes. “Go for it, then.”
The pedals had stirrups. When he pushed off to get the bike going, and threw his right leg over the saddle, the high gear/large sprocket didn’t give him enough torque to maintain minimum start-speed, so the front wheel immediately began to wig-wag back and forth and, despite a Herculean athletic effort, he eventually dumped onto his side, one foot stuck in its stirrup. Right there on Selmser Avenue. Me erupting in a volcanic explosion of hilarity.
Until I saw the look on my mom’s face, jarringly similar to the look I’d seen on her face a handful of times during my childhood when one of us had come home bloody, broken-hearted, arrested or emotionally lost.
Dad was hurt. And not just, hit-my-thumb-with-a-damn-hammer-hurt.
Outside, Dad pulled himself off the pavement as winners do. Despite the humiliation of having fallen down so awkwardly, his Get Up was as epic as Sonny Liston’s wasn’t.
Dad got up. His face white. Grimacing and holding his ribs, walking the bike back into the yard, looking for scratches in the paint. I met him at the curb. The handlebars bent.
“You OK, Dad?”
“That’s the stupidest damn bicycle I ever rode. How much you pay for that?”
“Well, honestly, Dad, you didn’t really get to put it to the test, so…”
“How much you pay for that damn thing?”
As usual, Mom was there to save the day.
“You OK, Honey?” Mom said.
“Of course I’m OK,” Dad said. What else does one say? “Dumbass bike, though, I’ll tell you that, right now.”
Dad was OK.
I wasn’t. I hated the dawning notion that my dad’s physicality had become suspect. The guy who never lost a game of horse in my life. The guy who, like my little brother, could do anything he wanted with a ball of any kind. “Other than boxing, if it don’t have a ball, it ain’t a sport.” The guy who taught me to fight. In the basement. Showing me that fighting was more than an expression of rage and fear and much, much more of way of communicating dominance. Ugly, but true. The guy who showed me how to do chin-ups with my palms out AND palms in, for maximum effect. That guy was now physically lesser than I was.
A few years later, on Father’s Day, my dad and I did the white water rafting thing on the St. Louis River. At one point, he fell out. I remember the look on his face, as I grabbed him by the back of his shorts, pulled him out of the river and tossed him back into the boat. Though laughing like crazy, it was clear he was not comfortable with the One Being Saved. And I was not comfortable being the one on the other end of that equation.
Dads get old. I should’ve been smart enough to make my peace with that before mine died. For some reason, I didn’t. I loved not being the boss of my dad.
Dads get old. And kids do, too, but slower.
Dads: Embrace it.
Kids: Don’t fear it.
Moms/Wives: Don’t believe it.